I recently met with the director of a small nonprofit to talk about how her organization could create a more effective annual appeal. As she fanned out last year’s campaign materials on a table, she said (sort of apologetically), “The design isn’t great, but it’s good enough.” Personally, this kind of mindset makes me crazy. My problem with this attitude is that it could have a negative effect on the bottom line of the annual appeal. 

When something is actually designed well — whether it’s a website, a donor pledge card, street signage, your car or anything else we encounter in our lives — you ‘re inclined not to notice. It is easy to take it for granted and move on. You typically don’t think to give credit for the ease of functionality to the good design. Well-designed things tend to be simple to use, enjoyable to read, comfortable to wear, or fun to experience. In contrast, with items that are poorly designed (or whose design is merely “good enough”), you notice because they function incorrectly, convey a confusing or incorrect message, are annoying or boring … or all of the above. 

Scott Dadich, editor of Wired magazine, sees design impacting our lives almost everywhere. He explains, “You may not have thought about it, but designers touch and shape every single part of your day; they are a constant presence in your life. Your smartphone, glasses, activity tracker—someone made them, worrying over the details that turned those things into indispensable companions. From the x-height of the type on your car's in-dash display to the lumbar support of your new desk chair to that sacred moment every evening when you finally jettison your Flyknits, pretty much every experience has been lovingly crafted — one might even say engineered — by designers.”

Granted, you may seldom look at any particular human-made object and say to yourself, “This is a great design.” But chances are, you do occasionally encounter good design — and when you do, it’s likely that you have a pleasant experience using it or interacting with it. Because of the effectiveness of design, you may be inspired to take action, find your way, learn new things, or change a behavior. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg notes, “Design does matter. And not necessarily in a way that people realize.” 

Bloomberg is primarily referring to design on a citywide scale, but according to Randall Smith, founder of the Salt Lake City branding firm Modern 8, essentially the same principle can apply to a business or organization as well: “If good design is doing its job,” says Smith, “it is managing your perception of an experience in many ways — both obvious and not so obvious. How you feel, and therefore whether you’re going to engage and buy, is directly influenced by the design of a website, a package or a business card.” 

Hiding in plain sight
It may be counterintuitive, but in many cases, good design can be almost invisible. Steve Jobs, the founder and visionary behind Apple Computer, once said, “Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It‘s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”

Good design can also provide strategic advantages to organizations — by boosting sales, nurturing loyal donors, or influencing other changes in attitude and behavior. Statistics from MobileCause show that branded campaign donation pages collect 38% more funds than generic online giving pages. And the Stanford Web Credibility Projectfound that 47% of users make buying decisions based upon a business’s website alone.

Another counterintuitive point about good design is that although it may seem natural and effortless, the reality is that it takes time and effort. The designer has to think through the user’s experience, editing and refining the message and visuals until all but the most essential elements remain. Brian Sooy, author of Raise your Voice, wrote “Design choices must be purposeful and intentional, exist for the cause, be driven by the mission, and be guided by the purpose for which the organization exists.” 

Design is not a bonus or an extravagance. It’s the quiet, behind-the-scenes worker bee influencing how we feel and how we act. Douglas Martin has a great quote in his book, Book Design, A Practical Introduction. “Questions about whether design is necessary or affordable are quite beside the point: design is inevitable. The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design at all.” 

So… what is design doing for your organization?